Super Bowl not a long shot for 49ers
January 07, 2003
ERIC GILMORE: TIMES COLUMNIST
SANTA CLARA - In the wake of the 49ers' great wild-card escape Sunday against the New York Giants, one question begs an answer:
Can the 49ers reach the Super Bowl? Let's answer that question with another question. Why not?
If they can overcome a 24-point deficit in the football equivalent of a blink of the eye, then they can win two more playoff games.
If they can beat the Giants 39-38 in the second greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, then they can defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend and either the Philadelphia Eagles or Atlanta Falcons the weekend after that.
After what the 49ers did Sunday, anything and everything is possible for a team that entered the playoffs with a bandwagon that was as crowded as Olympic Stadium for an Expos game.
Why not the 49ers in the Super Bowl? Even the breaks are starting to go their way.
After further review, the league admitted Monday that the 49ers should have been penalized for pass interference on the game's final play when Giants holder Matt Allen threw a desperation pass after a bad snap nixed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
That would have resulted in offsetting penalties -- ineligible receiver downfield and pass interference -- and one more play for the Giants.
"That's the way it goes," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said.
That's often the way it goes for teams that reach the Super Bowl. Or had you forgotten the New England Patriots, referee Walt Coleman and the "tuck rule"?
Sunday's victory was the type that can ignite a Super Bowl run. Special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said he saw it happen in 1992. He was coaching the Buffalo Bills special teams at the time. The Bills pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history, turning a 35-3 deficit to the Houston Oilers into a 41-38 wild-card victory in overtime.
The next week, Buffalo crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-3 on the road. Then the Bills traveled to Miami for the AFC title game and beat the Dolphins 29-10.
"I felt that comeback win helped carry us through that game on the road in Pittsburgh," DeHaven said. "I felt that game really lifted our confidence.
"I think confidence is one of the most underrated things in the league. Our team is still very young. That win had to be a great shot to their confidence."
At Mariucci's request, DeHaven talked to the 49ers about the benefits of such a remarkable comeback. Mariucci also made sure to give his players a chance to enjoy Sunday's win before switching gears and preparing for the Buccaneers.
"I think it's good for them to enjoy it," Mariucci said. "I want them to watch the film so they can relive it, enjoy it.
"I think we can take something from it. The next time we're down in a game, we can maybe remember we were able to do it before against a real good team."
If nothing else, Sunday's win should have reminded the 49ers that they have a legitimate chance to reach the Super Bowl.
After all, this is the NFL era of salary caps, free agency and parity. There are no truly great teams, no unbeatable teams in the league. Every team is beatable, at home or away.
The Atlanta Falcons lived that new NFL reality last week when they treated the playoff mystique of Green Bay's Lambeau Field as if it were so much mumbo jumbo.
Every playoff team is flawed in some way. Take the Bucs. They own the NFL's No. 1 defense, but they're -- how can we put this? -- offensively challenged.
The Bucs expected new coach Jon Gruden to create some of his West Coast offense magic. So far, the new Bucs offense has been about as explosive as the old Bucs offense.
Tampa's offense ranks 24th overall, worst among the 12 playoff teams. Their rushing offense ranks 27th. Yes, worst again.
The Bucs passing attack ranks 15th in the league, seventh among the playoff teams. That's better. Quarterback Brad Johnson is the NFC's top-rated quarterback (92.9). Better yet.
But Johnson has a bad back and missed the team's final two regular-season games. One wrong move or hard hit, and Johnson could be on the bench and backup Rob Johnson -- the world's most sackable quarterback -- in the game.
"I'm confident in this team," 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said. "I like our chances."
Why shouldn't he?
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